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Headlines Published on 16 September 2003

Title Bagging the plastic blight once and for all  

They are ugly, bad for the environment and potential animal killers, but we love them all the same. Each year billions of plastic bags are used by shoppers to carry home goods. But their utility and popularity could prove to be their downfall. 

On land, in the oceans and suspended in the air, plastic bags are literally everywhere  ©Photo: Vincent Cobb,

On land, in the oceans and suspended in the air, plastic bags are literally everywhere

©Photo: Vincent Cobb,

Many of us can still remember a visit to the supermarket where a young store attendant would pack the groceries into a large brown paper bag. That all changed when plastic bags began appearing in the shops in the 1970s.

At first, they were considered a gift from God: they were sturdy, cheap to produce and more convenient for carrying items. Today, almost 30 years on, hundreds of billions are produced each year worldwide. Many end up hanging from trees, clogging drains and are accidentally consumed by land and sea animals. In the European Union alone, 5-10 million tonnes of plastic waste ends up in landfills or is incinerated.

Several nations around the world, including Australia, Bangladesh, South Africa, Taiwan and Ireland, have taken the radical step of taxing plastic bags to discourage their use, according to a National Geographic report.

In March 2002, Ireland introduced a 15 cent tax on each plastic bag sold. This resulted in a 95% cut in their use. An official at the Friends of the Irish Environment in County Cork has hailed the tax as an “extraordinary success” in reducing plastic bag consumption in the country. The majority of Irish shoppers now carry around reusable bags, he confirms.

Kicking the plastic habit

Similar approaches are being considered in parts of England and by US authorities, the report continues. But concerns have been raised about large job losses in the plastic bag industry, as well as potential deterioration of the environment if the alternative becomes paper bag use. According to the American Plastics Council, producing paper bags is actually more expensive, uses more energy and landfill space and potentially causes more environmental pollution than plastic bags.

To successfully implement a system of levies on plastic bags, it would need to be backed up with a campaign to encourage sensible use of alternatives, such as reusable shopping bags. Those stores and consumers continuing to use plastic bags could be persuaded to recycle or reuse them instead of simply dumping them. “The [plastics] industry works with its US retail customers to encourage recycling of plastic bags, which are in high demand from companies… for use in [for example] building materials,” a spokesperson from the Council is quoted as saying.

The European Union’s Sixth Framework Programme for research has set aside over €2.1 billion to tackle the challenges associated with ‘Sustainable development, global change and ecosystems’. Past EU-funded research projects have looked into the areas of bioplastics, biorecycling and ecological impacts of non-biodegradable materials, to name a few.

Source:  EU sources, National Geographic  

Research Contacts page

More information:

  • Facts on plastic bags
  • National Geographic article

  • Australian retailers levy tax on plastic bags (The Age, Australia)

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